Monday, May 23, 2005

Read a Book, Fer Chrissakes
With tonight's season finale of 24, we have officially concluded another TV season at our house. Here's a look back at the four primetime series The Mrs. and I watched regularly this past year.

NYPD Blue: We watched this one from its first episode in 1993, and I still watch the repeats most days when I knock off for lunch. The show's best years were the four-plus seasons starring Jimmy Smits (1994-1998), but Blue didn't really start running out of gas until the last half-dozen episodes, which must be some kind of record for a show that ran 11 seasons. The idea that boss-hating detective Andy Sipowicz (played by Dennis Franz) might suddenly decide to become first, a uniformed sergeant, and later, chief of the detective squad, was fairly implausible. Nevertheless, it was fitting that NYPD Blue should have gone out with the idea that the police work goes on even though the audience won't be watching every week. After all, that's how Steven Bochco ended his first groundbreaking cop show, Hill Street Blues. (The five-episode arc in which Smits' character dies of heart disease, being repeated on TNT this week at 1PM Central each day, is television that is both impossible to watch and impossible to tear yourself away from once you start.)

The West Wing: I wrote about this show last February, and I didn't see anything in the last two months of episodes that changed my mind--it's pretty much jumped the shark. The season's presidential campaign arc produced two candidates viewers are supposed to take seriously mostly because the show's other characters tell us we should take them seriously--we certainly haven't seen enough character development so we can decide for ourselves. Because I've invested six years in The West Wing--and because when the blind pigs who produce the show find an acorn in the script pile, it's still compelling TV--I'll be watching the first few episodes next fall, but I won't promise to stay for the whole season.

Desperate Housewives:
Let me say first that I really like this show. Let me say second that it's the most overrated program on television. It's well-plotted--but we've got to make a distinction between well-plotted and well-written, because I wouldn't call Desperate Housewives well-written. Some shows you can enjoy for the writing--The West Wing was certainly one of them, during the years creator Aaron Sorkin did most of the writing; Seinfeld is another; even NYPD Blue, for its creative use of profanity and slang. The writing on Desperate Housewives is strictly utilitarian--even the supposed profundities by the narrative Housewife, Mary Alice Young, who committed suicide in the first episode and whose reason for doing so was revealed in last night's season finale. (And let's be honest: Even the plotting fell apart on the finale, which hurried at least two episodes' worth of business into one hour--the least involving episode of the season.) What makes Desperate Housewives involving is the same thing that makes daytime soaps involving--not that there's anything wrong with that, but don't confuse it with Great Art.

24: It's fashionable to criticize 24 for its implausibility--this season, in a single day, we've seen the same terrorist mastermind attempt to melt down every nuclear plant in the country, successfully shoot down Air Force One, and launch a nuclear missile from Iowa toward a major city, all the while dodging government agents whose vast technological arsenal seems to fail every time it gets close to capturing him. If you can forgive 24's implausibilities, it's the wildest thrill ride in television history. Implausible or not, however, the show's meta-narrative--that there's no limit to what terrorists might try, so there's no limit to what must be done to stop them--is as troubling a premise as any TV program has ever been based on. For that reason, watching 24 often feels like looking into the future, so, when the show is at its best, it's scary as hell.

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